Waste, resources and pollution: exploring the role of biogas in the energy-food-health nexus in high-altitude Nepal


In Nepal, nearly 90% of energy consumed comes from traditional biomass fuels such as firewood, agro-waste such corn stalk and rice chaff or cattle dung cakes dried by the sun. Lack of access to modern energy has significant implications for economic development, rural livelihoods, environmental sustainability in addition to social dignity & health. In many remote areas of Nepal, providing energy for the most basic of needs such as cooking and lighting is still a major challenge for the rural poor. This dependency on firewood and other agro-waste not only has significant environmental implications such as deforestation, but also has serious health impacts through the exposure to high levels of indoor air pollution.

With more than 80% of people surviving on subsistence agricultural, Nepal has benefited from the development of the domestic biogas sector. Biogas plants produce methane from the breakdown of organic material in a process known as anaerobic digestion. The feedstock can include vegetable and food waste, agricultural residues, animal manure and even human extreta and therefore can be a useful and effective waste management process. In addition to biogas, anaerobic digesters (AD) also produce an organic fertiliser that can be used on agricultural farmland. The Nepali biogas sector is often hailed as an international success story, however, it is thought that less than 10% of the total biogas potential has been realised. One of the key challenges is the environmental conditions of many regions of Nepal, where low temperatures reduce the efficiency of biogas production. In addition, over 75% of Nepal is at an altitude of 610m or above meaning access and implementation is difficult.

The potential benefits of these small-scale anaerobic digesters (ADs) are three-fold; they provide a clean, cheap alternative fuel; they produce a marketable biofertiliser; and they reduce gender divisions of labour by reducing the need for women and children to collect fuel wood. Despite the potential of this underutilised technology to reduce poverty by improving energy access, reduce waste, improve health and facilitate more sustainable livelihoods, there are significant social, cultural and technological challenges facing the use of biogas at remote, high altitude areas.

The overarching aim of this studentship will be to quantify and enhance the role of domestic AD systems for improving sustainable rural futures in remote, high altitude areas of Nepal by, (i) increasing rural household energy security (ii) improving resource use and waste management (iii) increasing food security and sustainable livelihoods by producing a product that is safe to use as a soil amendment in agronomic systems and (iv) improving health through the use of cleaner cooking fuel. Central to this project will be an evaluation of the social and cultural challenges in maintaining the long-term sustainability of biogas technology.

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This interdisciplinary project will integrate energy studies with environmental public health, waste management and sustainable livelihoods. The project will adopt a mixed methods approach, combining research design and theories from both the natural & social sciences to broaden the understanding of the challenges and benefits associated with biogas production in remote and hard to reach areas of Nepal.

During this project the student will carry out one scoping study and at least one substantial fieldwork season in Nepal working with a range of organisations and communities involved in the biogas sector. Data collection will involve field and laboratory work, as well as significant community engagement in rural Nepal. The energy potential of high altitude ADs will be quantified using demonstrator units at 3 locations. These will be used to test biogas technology innovations and determine both the optimal conditions and feedstock for maximum methane production and cooking gas quality. To assess the combined potential of AD systems as a pathway for improved waste management, health benefits and food security (via the use of digestate as a safe biofertiliser), resource inputs and outputs will be tested and quantified over time and indoor air pollution will be measured.

A participatory ethnographic approach, drawing on a combination of novel techniques such as geo-located walking interviews, participatory mapping exercises, focus group discussions and participant observation, will be used during fieldwork to understand how remote rural communities perceive issues of energy security, resource and waste mangagement, and health issues. Data arising from this project will then be used to develop technical and social innovations for incentivising local communities to adopt alternative energy security & waste management approaches that could lead to decreased health burden and foster sustainable livelihoods.

Key research questions:
1. Can feedstock composition be optimised to increase biogas quantity & quality?
2. Is anaerobic digestion an effective waste management strategy in high altitude communties?
3. Does high altitude AD digestate produce a valuable biofertiliser that can be safely used in sustainable agro-ecosystems?
4. What are the social & cultural challenges associated with using biogas systems and maintaining them in remote areas?
5. What differences regarding usability and acceptance are evident across different rural/urban and caste and ethnicity dimensions?

Project Timeline

Year 1

‘Quantifying energy potential from high altitude biogas plants’ Following a critical review of the literature (months: 0-4), the student will use a scoping visit to build a baseline dataset of resources, environmental conditions, and plan the demonstrator sites. Initial data will be collected from an existing biogas plant in Chandanbari.

Year 2

‘The environmental sustainability of AD for remote rural community livelihoods’ In this phase the student will undertake a series of field experiments to identify the optimal conditions for producing biogas in high altitude areas and quantify the role of AD for, (i) managing waste resources (invasive plants, waste food, animal manure etc.) leading to more sustainable community sanitation; and (ii) producing a clean, and affordable energy source and (iii) producing an added-value bio-fertiliser with commercial market potential, thus investigating the potential for safely using AD digestate as part of a transformative & sustainable low-tech strategy relevant for resource-poor subsistence farmers in remote areas.

Year 3

‘Exploring the socio-cultural challenges associated with using biogas systems in remote areas’ The student will use a number of participatory approaches to explore the usability of the biogas plants and how challenges identified may be overcome. The student will monitor levels of indoor air pollution to assess the potential impacts on public health.

Year 3.5

The overlapping data collection phases of the project will take 34 months to complete, with the remaining time being allocated to writing the thesis & papers for publication, attending conferences & networking with stakeholders.

& Skills

This studentship will provide a platform to build an interdisciplinary research career in energy studies, sustainable development and public health. The student will develop broad expertise in the environmental sciences, together with skills in the social sciences & applied anthropology. Extensive skill development in fieldwork will include comprehensive training in sampling & monitoring techniques, while the student will also benefit from working closely with experienced field researchers in Nepal. The studentship will broaden the scope of the applicant’s skills base by providing specialist training in the monitoring of indoor air pollution.

References & further reading

Gautam, R., Baral, S., Herat, S. 2009. Biogas as a sustainable energy source in Nepal: Present status and future challenges. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 13, p248-252.
Meeks, R., Sims, K.R.E. & Thompson, H. 2019. Waste Not: Can Household Biogas Deliver Sustainable Development? Environmental and Resource Economics, 72, 763.

Further Information

For informal enquiries: Dr Jen Dickie (j.a.dickie@stir.ac.uk)

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